MSI MEG Z790 Ace MAX Motherboard Review: Native 14th Gen, but Little Else

Our first updated board from MSI is the company’s premium “mid-range” MEG Z790 Ace MAX. Like all of the updated boards from MSI (they are all labeled “MAX”), these are functionally the same motherboards with the same hardware, outside of swapping out Wi-Fi 6E for Wi-Fi 7. Aesthetically, there are also very few differences. In fact, it’s just finishes, a different accent color, and adding the MAX nomenclature. While that may sound bad, the Z790 Ace was already a good motherboard, presenting users with flagship-class hardware and a premium appearance in its first go-around.

The problem is the price in the current market. Where you can now get a Z790 Ace for under $600 today, the Ace MAX’s MSRP is $699.99, with the most significant difference hardware-wise coming in the form of Wi-Fi 7. That’s not to say other board partners didn’t raise their prices on some / all SKUs, too. They did. MSI came out with the Godlike MAX ($1,299), Carbon MAX Wi-Fi ($499), Edge Ti MAX Wi-Fi ($399.99), the Tomahawk MAX Wi-Fi, and the budget Pro Z790-A MAX Wi-Fi ($279). There are plenty of refresh boards available in the MSI Z790 product stack, though it is missing updated Micro ATX and Mini-ITX offerings.

As far as our board, we know from the previous review it comes with almost all the bells and whistles the platform offers. From the Thunderbolt 4 ports to the PCIe 5.0 slots and M.2 socket to the upgraded Wi-Fi 7, there’s plenty to like. The all-black look is broken up by the MSI Dragon above the IO and the chipset area,  lit from behind with RGB LEDs. Performance on this board was one of the best, on average, we’ve seen across our test suite. The 360mm AIO setting we selected on the first boot raises both power limits to the maximum, so you’re limited only by cooling. In all, this was a performant motherboard in our productivity tests, and the fastest in our gaming results too, by a couple of frames per second.

Below, we’ll dig into the details of the board and see how it performs with the new Intel Core i9-14900K processor and against a few other new Z790 motherboards. It won’t make our best motherboards list (mostly due to its price), but it is a solid motherboard full of features. We’ve made a few updates and tweaks to our benchmarking suite (details below), taking the opportunity to upgrade the OS, benchmarks and drivers for these refresh boards. But before we get into those details, we’ll start by listing the MEG Z790 Ace MAX’s specifications from MSI.

Specifications: MSI MEG Z790 Ace MAX

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Socket LGA1700
Chipset Z790
Form Factor E-ATX
Voltage Regulator 27 Phase (24x 105A SPS MOSFETs for Vcore)
Video Ports (1) Type-C DisplayPort
Row 5 – Cell 0 (2) Mini-DisplayPort (Input)
USB Ports (2) Thunderbolt 4 Type-C (40 Gbps)
Row 7 – Cell 0 (1) USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-C (10 Gbps)
Row 8 – Cell 0 (7) USB 3.2 Gen 2 (10 Gbps)
Network Jacks (2) 2.5 GbE
Audio Jacks (5) Analog + SPDIF
Legacy Ports/Jacks
Other Ports/Jack
PCIe x16 (1) v5.0 (x16, x8 w/device in M2_4 or PCI_E2 occupied
Row 14 – Cell 0 (1) v5.0 (x8)
Row 15 – Cell 0 (1) v4.0 (x4)
PCIe x8
PCIe x4
PCIe x1
CrossFire/SLI AMD Multi-GPU support
DIMM Slots (4) DDR5 7800+(OC), 192GB Capacity
M.2 Sockets (1) PCIe 5.0 x4 (128 Gbps) / PCIe (up to 80mm)
Row 22 – Cell 0 (3) PCIe 4.0 x4 (64 Gbps) / PCIe (up to 80mm)
Row 23 – Cell 0 (1) PCIe 4.0 x4 (64 Gbps) / PCIe + SATA (up to 110mm)
Row 24 – Cell 0 (1) PCIe 4.0 x4 (64 Gbps) / PCIe + SATA (up to 800mm)
Row 25 – Cell 0 Supports RAID 0/1/5/10
SATA Ports (6) SATA3 6 Gbps (Supports RAID 0/1/5/10)
USB Headers (1) USB v3.2 Gen 2×2, Type-C (20 Gbps)
Row 28 – Cell 0 (2) USB v3.2 Gen 1 (5 Gbps)
Row 29 – Cell 0 (2) USB v2.0 (480 Mbps)
Fan/Pump Headers (8) 4-Pin (CPU, Pump, System)
RGB Headers (3) aRGB (3-pin)
Row 32 – Cell 0 (1) RGB (4-pin)
Diagnostics Panel (1) EZ Debug LED
Row 34 – Cell 0 (1) 2-digit debug
Internal Button/Switch Power and Reset buttons, LED and BIOS switches
SATA Controllers ASMedia ASM1061
Ethernet Controller(s) (2) Intel I-226V (2.5 GbE)mm
Wi-Fi / Bluetooth Qualcomm QCNCM865 Wi-Fi 7 (2×2 ax, MU-MIMO, 2.4/5/6 GHz, 320 MHz, BT 5.3)
USB Controllers Genesys Logic GLG3590
HD Audio Codec Realtek ALC4082 (ESS ES9280AQ DAC/HPA)
DDL/DTS ✗ / DTS:X Ultra
Warranty 3 Years

Inside the Box of the MSI MEG Z790 Ace MAX

Along with the motherboard, MSI throws in several accessories to help get you started. You get the guides, notices, stickers, SATA cables, thermistors, EZ M.2 clips, and more. Below is a complete list of the included accessories.

  • Quick Install guide
  • (4) SATA Data Cables
  • EZ M.2 clips, M.2 screws/standoffs
  • EZ Front Panel Cable
  • (2) Thermistor cables
  • 1 to 2 RGB LED Y cable
  • Rainbow RGB LED extension cable
  • (2) DP to Mini DP cables
  • Wi-Fi antenna
  • USB driver stick
  • Cable stickers

Design of the Z790 Ace MAX

Most of the Z790 refresh boards do a little something to distinguish the refresh boards from the rest. Naming conventions and hardware changes are one way, but looks can be another. The Z790 Ace MAX didn’t change much at all on its E-ATX frame. You can see the white accents and the MAX branding (versus the gold on the previous model), but it’s otherwise remarkably similar. You get large heatpipe-connected VRM heatsinks, with the MSI dragon illuminated from behind with RGB lighting. The top M.2 socket uses a large screwless heatsink with the “Ace” branding illuminated with RGB LEDs. We liked the high-end look before, and that doesn’t change with the subtle aesthetic updates here.

(Image credit: MSI)

Starting with the top portion of the board, the first thing we see is the oversized heatpipe-connected heatsinks sporting MSI’s Stacked Fin-Array design `to cool the VRMs below. Between the mass and the surface area on the Stacked Fin Array, it’s a solid passive solution. On top is the MSI dragon illuminated with an RGB element from behind, along with the MEG branding in white (as opposed to gold on the non-MAX).

Moving right, past the socket, are four unreinforced DRAM slots with a locking mechanism on the bottom. MSI lists support to DDR5-7800+(OC), the same as the original version, along with a maximum capacity of 192 GB. Just above, in a unique location, are the two 8-pin EPS connectors (one required) to power the processor. Unlike most motherboards, the location to the right of the processor is unique, so make sure your chassis has the cutouts available in that area for clean cable routing.

In the right corner is the first 4-pin fan/pump header (of nine). CPU_FAN1 and PUMP_FAN1/2 output up to 3A/36W each. The remainder of the headers, SYS_FAN1-5, defaults to DC mode (the others auto-detect PWM/DC modes) and output up to 2A/24W. There is plenty of power and plenty of headers to connect and control your cooling through the board.

Also located in this area are the first two (of four total) RGB headers. In this case, it’s two of the three 3-pin ARGB headers. The Mystic Light application controls the RGB areas. It has several canned RGB modes and adjustments for brightness and speed and is just as comprehensive as the competition. Lastly, along the top edge is the 2-character debug LED that displays troubleshooting codes during POST and then CPU temperature once in Windows.

Sliding down the right edge, we find two more 4-pin fan/pump headers, the 24-pin ATX power lead for the board, two front panel USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 (20 Gbps) Type-C headers, a 6-pin PCIe power connector to enable USB PD 60W charging from those front panel Type-C headers.

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)

Moving on to the VRMs, it’s the same as the original Z790 Ace. Power comes from the 8-pin EPS connector(s) onto a Renesas RAA229131 PWM controller. For Vcore, it moves on to 24 105A Renesas RAA22010540 SPS MOSFETs. The 2,520 Amps available is still one of the highest values we’ve seen and easily handles the latest and greatest flagship Intel Core i9-14900K at stock and overclocked, even with sub-ambient cooling methods. We have no concerns about the MEG Ace MAX’s overbuilt power delivery or VRM cooling.

(Image credit: MSI)

On the bottom half of the board, covered almost completely with heatsinks, we find one of the best integrated audio solutions. Hidden under the shroud on the left are the latest-gen Realtek ALC4082 codec and an ESS ES9280AQ DAC/HPA combo, among several dedicated audio capacitors. Control over the sound is handled through the Realtek application.

In the middle of the board, three full-length reinforced PCIe slots and five M.2 sockets comprise most of the real estate. Starting with the slots, the top two (PCI_E1 and PCI_E2) source their lanes from the CPU. The top slot is your PCIe 5.0 x16-capable socket, while the second one runs up to PCIe 5.0 x8 (which cuts the x16 slot to x8 when populated). The bottom slot connects through the chipset and runs up to PCIe 4.0 x4. MSI’s website lists AMD Multi-GPU support for those who still want to mess around with a Crossfire configuration.

Located in and around the PCIe slots are five M.2 sockets. Only one slot supports PCIe 5.0 x4 (128 Gbps) speeds, and surprisingly, it isn’t the top socket with the larger heatsink. Instead, it’s the bottom left (M2_4) socket that’s the faster option. The rest support PCIe 4.0 x4 speeds, with a couple offering support for up to 110mm modules. Two sockets offer M.2 SATA support, which you don’t see too often anymore. On the lane-sharing front, the M2_4 slot (the only PCIe 5.0 socket) is disabled when PCI_E2 (the middle slot) is populated. Additionally, SATA7 is unavailable when installing a SATA-based M.2 SSD in the M2_5 socket. Just be aware of the sharing issues if you’re trying to populate many of these storage options.

Across the bottom of the board are several exposed headers. You’ll find the usual, including additional USB ports, RGB headers, and power/reset buttons. Below is a complete list from left to right.

  • Front panel audio
  • 4-pin ARGB header
  • (5) System Fan headers
  • Waterflow header
  • Temperature sensor headers
  • LED and BIOS switches
  • (2) USB 2.0 headers
  • Power and Reset buttons
  • MIS Dashboard header
  • System panel header
  • 4-pin ARGB header

(Image credit: MSI)

On the preinstalled rear IO plate, the Z790 Ace MAX (like the non-MXsports a black background with gold labels on all of the ports. There are 10 USB ports in total: eight 10 Gbps ports (in red, plus a Type-C) and two 40 Gbps Type-C ports. Video outputs consist of a Type-C port and Mini-DisplayPort inputs for the Thunderbolt ports. There are three buttons on the far left: a clear CMOS button, Flash BIOS and Smart buttons. The dual 2.5 GbE ports sit above the USB ports, with the Wi-Fi 7 quick antenna connections to the right, next to the 5-plug analog plus SPDIF audio stack.

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Firmware

MSI’s BIOS for the Ace MAX is the same as other Z790 we’ve seen before. There are some new additions because of the new 14th-gen processor. Outside of that, the menus reside on the sides and information up top, a unique look compared to other BIOS’. It still has a black background with red highlights, making it easy to read. It also has an informative Easy Mode that displays various information about the system and allows for some changes (boot order and XMP enable, enable/disable RGBs, etc.). Though different than other UEFIs, it is easy to navigate; everything has a place, and many frequently used options are readily available, not buried within sub-menus.

Software

MSI has a single utility, MSI Center, that covers quite a bit of functionality. From hardware monitoring to RGB control with Mystic Light, there are many applets within the software and a one-stop shop to download all of their utilities. I wish there were some overclocking options, however. But for those looking to use the Gamebar feature, Super Charger, or any other utilities MSI offers will all be at your fingertips in MSI Center.

Test System / Comparison Products

We’ve updated our test system to Windows 11 64-bit OS with all updates applied as of mid-October 2023. We kept the sameAsus TUF RTX 3070 video card from our previous testing platforms but have updated the driver to the latest, keeping our games, F1 22 and Far Cry 6, the same. We use the latest non-beta motherboard BIOS available to the public, unless otherwise noted, using ‘optimized default’ settings except for the memory (XMP). The hardware and drivers we used is as follows:

Test System Components

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CPU Intel Core i9-14900K
Memory Kingston Fury Beast DDR5-6000 CL36 (KF560C36BBEAK2-32)
Row 2 – Cell 0 Teamgroup T-Force Delta RGB DDR5- 7200 CL34 (FF3D516G7200HC34ABK)
GPU Asus TUF RTX 3070
Cooling Coolermaster MasterLiquid PL360 Flux
PSU EVGA Supernova 850W P6
Software Windows 11 64-bit (22H2)
Graphics NVIDIA Driver 537.42

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)

Benchmark Settings

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Synthetic Benchmarks and Settings Row 0 – Cell 1
Procyon Version 2.6.848 64
Row 2 – Cell 0 Office Suite (Office 365), Video Editing (Premiere Pro 23.6), Photo Editing (Photoshop 25.0, Lightroom Classic 12.5)
3DMark Version 2.27.8177 64
Row 4 – Cell 0 Firestrike Extreme (v1.1) and Time Spy (v1.2) Default Presets
Cinebench R24 Version ‘build unknown’
Row 6 – Cell 0 Open GL Benchmark – Single and Multi-threaded
Blender Version 3.6.0
Row 8 – Cell 0 Full benchmark (all 3 tests)
Application Tests and Settings Row 9 – Cell 1
LAME MP3 Version SSE2_2019
Row 11 – Cell 0 Mixed 271MB WAV to mp3: Command: -b 160 –nores (160Kb/s)
HandBrake CLI Version: 1.2.2
Row 13 – Cell 0 Sintel Open Movie Project: 4.19GB 4K mkv to x264 (light AVX) and x265 (heavy AVX)
Corona 1.4 Version 1.4
Row 15 – Cell 0 Custom benchmark
7-Zip Version 21.03-beta
Row 17 – Cell 0 Integrated benchmark (Command Line)
Game Tests and Settings Row 18 – Cell 1
Far Cry 6 Ultra Preset – 1920 x 1080, HD Textures ON
F1 2022 Ultra Preset – 1920 x 1080, Ultra High (default) Bahrain (Clear/Dry), FPS Counter ON

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Our standard benchmarks and power tests are performed using the CPU’s stock frequencies (including any default boost/turbo), with all power-saving features enabled. We set optimized defaults in the BIOS and the memory by enabling the XMP profile. The Windows power scheme is set to Balanced (default) for this baseline testing, so the PC idles appropriately.

Synthetic Benchmarks

Synthetics provide a great way to determine how a board runs, as identical settings should produce similar performance results. Turbo boost wattage and advanced memory timings are places where motherboard makers can still optimize for either stability or performance, though, and those settings can impact some testing.

In our synthetic benchmarks, the 14900K/Ace MAX combo is one of the more performant boards due to our choice of cooler settings in the BIOS. Since we used the highest one (360mm AIO), this automatically adjusts the PL1/PL2 limits to 4096W. In other words, you’re limited by cooling in that scenario.

Timed Applications

In our timed applications, the Ace MAX spread its wings and showed what a fully unlocked BIOS and large AIO can do. In the Handbrake tests, it was second only to the ASRock PG Z790 Nova Wi-Fi. LAME testing has it tied with two others as the fastest and also leads the pack in the Corona ray tracing benchmark. No matter what you throw at it, the Ace MAX can get the most out of whatever CPU you place in the socket.

3D Games and 3DMark

Starting with the launch of Zen 4, we shifted our test games from F1 21 to F1 22, while keeping Far Cry 6. We run the games at 1920×1080 resolution using the Ultra preset (details listed above). As the resolution goes up, the CPU tends to have less impact. The goal with these settings is to determine if there are differences in performance at the most commonly used (and CPU/system bound) resolution with settings most people use or strive for (Ultra). We expect the difference between boards in these tests to be minor, with most falling within the margin of error differences. We’ve also added a minimum FPS value, which can affect your gameplay and immersion experience.

In gaming, our Ace MAX stretches its legs again, leading the pack F1 22 and Far Cry 6 benchmarks by a couple of frames per second each. The synthetic benchmarks also showed above-average performance. There’s nothing we threw at this board it didn’t chew up and swallow easily.

Overclocking

Generation after generation, overclocking headroom has been shrinking with both Intel and AMD processors, with motherboard partners pushing the limits to set themselves apart from the plethora of options available to the consumer. With the overclocking headroom all but gone, we’ve left things at stock for cores but will push the Integrated Memory Controller (IMC) for faster RAM. Remember, for 14th-gen CPUs, the maximum stock spec for memory is DDR5-6000 versus DDR5-5600 for 13th-gen. We have a DDR5-7200 kit in-house to test the higher speeds.

Both memory kits worked by simply enabling the XMP profile. With it rated up to DDR5-7800+(OC) and the 14000K’s maximum speed DDR5-6000 to start, you have to expect it to work. That and the sticks are on the memory QVL, giving you more assurance of a plug-and-play situation.

Power Consumption / VRM Temperatures

MSI MEG Z790 Ace MAX

(Image credit: Tom’s Hardware)

We used AIDA64’s System Stability Test with Stress CPU, FPU, Cache and Memory enabled for power testing, using the peak power consumption value. The wattage reading is from the wall via a Kill-A-Watt meter to capture the entire PC (minus the monitor). The only variable that changes is the motherboard; all other parts remain the same. Please note we moved to using only the stock power use/VRM temperature charts. Since the system uses every available degree Celsius, unless you’re using a sub-ambient cooling solution, you’ll use more power and generate more heat using default settings.

Idle power consumption on the Ace MAX is, unsurprisingly, the highest result so far. It idles the highest among the four tested boards at 79W while loading peaks at over 396W in our stress test, just behind the Aorus Master X (398W). If it’s efficiency you’re after, you should look elsewhere. However, the difference between all four is small, around 20W from most to least efficient.

VRM temperatures on the Ace MAX were higher than the Aorus Master X and Dark Hero, but that makes sense compared to the wattage they allow the CPU to use. The oversized heatsinks do a great job, though at keeping the beefy SPS MOSFETs well within specification, peaking around 54 degrees Celsius on our probe. This board pushed our i9-14900K to just over 300W during stress testing, and the Stacked Fin Array design did the job.

Bottom Line

The MSI MEG Z790 Ace MAX is an iterative update over the original Ace, offering users native 14th-gen support, plus Wi-Fi 7. MSI made minor changes to the premium appearance, but the differences are hardly noticeable. Hardware-wise, it still comes with the same overkill power delivery and robust cooling, flagship-class audio, Thunderbolt 4 (40 Gbps) Type-C ports, five M.2 sockets (incl. one PCIe 5.0 x4) with screwless M.2 clips and dual 2.5GbE. In short, the Ace MAX is still loaded with high-end hardware and looks the part of a premium mid-range motherboard.

Priced at $699.99, the board isn’t cheap, costing as much as the Asus ROG Maximus Z790 Dark Hero that we recently reviewed. Between these two, the most significant difference is the SATA port count and appearance. Gigabyte’s Z790 Aorus Master X ($549.99) and ASRock’s Z790 Taichi ($479.99) cost a lot less, but in the case of the Master X, you don’t get flagship-class audio or Thunderbolt 4 ports. The elephant in the room for all of these refresh boards is the fact that you can have 14th-gen support with a simple BIOS flash and not pay the premium for Wi-Fi 7, which most can’t utilize anyway, as Wi-Fi 7 routers are only just hitting the market.

In the end, MSI updated the Ace with Wi-Fi 7, slight tweaks to its appearance, and native support for the 14th-gen Intel processors. After choosing the 360mm AIO cooling and unlocking the power limits, it performed well in the productivity tests and especially well in gaming, leading the pack in our two game tests. While we like what the board offers, its price is still on the high end when stacked up against the competition. If you’re in the market for a premium mid-range motherboard and need the latest and greatest the platform offers, the refreshed Z790 Ace MAX is a well-equipped choice, though there are less expensive options available that offer better value.

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